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Posted in: Developing Perspectives (September 2012)

Traveling Light

By Bryan Bergeron

The Oscium instruments are first rate — sturdy miniature hardware and robust easy to use software. However, since I have a fullyequipped lab, there’s no reason for me to snap on a connector and boot up an iPad app when I have full-scale instruments within arm’s reach. I suspect that’s the case with many experimenters who are already stocked with test gear.

My virtual instruments no longer collect dust, however. Last week, I was called to make a day trip across country to examine a series of medical devices for a patent infringement case. I had no idea what to expect in terms of equipment on site, and given the tight airline schedule, this was a carry-on flight only. Forget checking a trunk with test equipment, or of putting a standard oscilloscope or spectrum analyzer through the TSA’s screening process. So, I grabbed the set of Oscium instruments and put them in the small outer pocket of my backpack. Total weight: about 6 oz and less volume than a miniature USB charger for my phone.

When I arrived on site, I was almost happy to find it ill-equipped. I used the WiPri spectrum analyzer (see the figure) to verify Wi-Fi activity and the scope and logic probe, in turn, to look at sensor output and data rates. All in all, lifesavers that paid for themselves in a single trip. So, now I keep the set of instruments in a small camera bag, with the oscilloscope probe and charger in a separate zip-up case — all set for the next flight out.

Although I still use my benchtop gear on a daily basis, I’ve started using the virtual instruments whenever I’m away from my bench. For example, in tuning up my latest quadcopter, I didn’t want anything tall enough to be struck by a spinning blade — that means no workbench. The kitchen table became my test area, and virtual instruments on my thin unobtrusive iPad became my bank of instruments.

I suspect that I’m not alone in my initial excitement over app-based virtual instruments for tablet computers. The question is, when will they make sense for most experimenters? I can see the obvious utility of these hardware and software apps in high school and college physics and electronics courses — forget the antiquated lab gear and bring your own modern digital gear to class. But what of the average experimenter?

I suspect it’s a matter of budget and travel habits. With the TSA and airlines forcing smaller and smaller carry-ons and frowning on big boxes loaded with wires and circuit boards, a tablet with add-ons is the way to go.

Another option is to go with several stand-alone, palm-sized instruments. I have one of those cell phone-sized digital oscilloscopes, for example. Unfortunately, I used the $99 scope only twice, in part because it took too long for me to figure out the convoluted menu system, and in part because the case was so poorly constructed that the battery had a tendency to pop out. An advantage of a standard interface panel (that is, tablet or smartphone) is that, well, it has a standard interface. Learn one instrument and you learn to use them all. It’s the same approach Apple used with the Macintosh which has had a measure of success.

If you have a favorite app and hardware combination for your tablet, please let me and the other readers hear about it. NV